Adventures in Ethics and Science

For the June edition of Scientiae, Zuska notes:

Taking up space in the world is a Bad Thing for women to do. We waste a lot of energy and time worrying about whether or not we are taking up too much space. …

How do you want to take up space? How do you want to let yourself sprawl, in your professional or personal life?

In the wake of the letter informing me that I had been awarded tenure, I’ve been thinking about sprawl and containment a lot.

My strategy for my six years as an untenured assistant professor was to come in to the office Monday through Friday and hunker down. Verily, there has been no shortage of pressing tasks with which to hunker down: designing classes, preparing for classes, teaching classes, responding to student work from classes, reading papers and books relevant to my research projects, doing writing for those projects, navigating endless tasks related to my committee work, …

Clearly, my to-do list has no reservations about sprawling.

My commute to campus, while not the worst ever, is not insignificant, so my colleagues would sometimes ask, “Why come in every day? Why not save yourself the commute time by doing some of this work from home?”

Would it surprise you that these questions came almost exclusively from the colleagues without kids?

The reason I drove to campus five days a week was that campus availed me of a dedicated place to work that no one was going to mess with. Sure, for many of the six years of my probationary period, my office was packed like a can of sardines. And it’s absolutely true that getting good thinking done while an office-mate is conducting office hours can be a real challenge. But I had a desk that was mine and a physical — and psychological — boundary between it and the sphere of my home life.

At home, until very recently, I didn’t even have a desk of my own.

This is not to say that my work life did not sprawl into my home life. How could it not? I teach, and those papers don’t grade themselves. Also, it seems to be an essential feature of mind-work that the mind has control over when it’s in the mood to yield the good stuff — even if it’s at 6 AM on Saturday morning. Academics seem to take for granted that their work will spill over into the hours that many who work at non-academic jobs seem able to rope off and designate as personal time.

But my hunch is that female academics with children feel guilty about this spill-over. I know I have. It has felt like a failure on my part that my career has taken up space that rightly belonged to my family. It has felt like, if only I were more efficient (or could get by on less sleep), I would be able to police the boundaries between work and life better. Then I’d have more time to play, or to weed the garden, or to bake bread.

Except that my academic career is part of my life. What I think about, teach about, and write about for a living is not, to me, just important because it helps me put food on the table and clothes on the sprogs’ backs. It is part of who I am. Seeing what I do in my work life, and why it matters to me, will (some day) help my children understand me as a person, not just as their mother.

And even if I didn’t identify so strongly with my work, working would still be part of the fabric of my daily life. Why, as a mother, should I feel like I need to hide that from my kids? Working is something that grown-ups do to contribute to the running of society. It’s not something shameful.

Given that in the coming academic year, my home will be the primary locus of my academic work, I think it’s time for me to kiss the shame goodbye.

I will not feel bad about allowing my work life to have a presence in my home life.

I will not feel bad about kicking the kids out of the living room (where my desk at home resides) when I need to have a quite chunk of time in which to think and write.

I will make a point of talking with my kids about what it is my work involves — at both the macro- and the micro-level. I will not hide the frustrations or the joys that go with it. I may even make them read drafts of paragraphs to see how much sense they make.

My career is not my whole life, but it is part of my life I love and value. So is my family. Rather than trying any longer to police a hard boundary between the two, I’m going to give the guards some time off and see if career and family can stand some more sprawl in both directions.


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    June 6, 2008

    That’s a beautiful and inspiring post!

    Frankly, it also makes me sad to learn that women are socialized to feel guilty about making their work central to their lives, while men are lionized for it. So, yeah, fuck it! Take what’s rightfully yours!

  2. #2 Wabi Sabi Me
    June 7, 2008

    Finding the delicate balance between family and work is such a struggle, and maybe if we didn’t see it as “one or the other,” there’d be no such thing as “mommy guilt.”

    When you enjoy your work (as you should) there is no reason to hide it from your family or friends. Someone said, “love means never having to justify your passion” and seeing Mom happily engaged in her work, really has lasting benefits for the children.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 7, 2008

    Well said!

    My wife appears guilt-free in bringing professorial paperwork home, or in bringing projects from home to campus.

    Sometimes she goes to campus to get away from home, and to use the swimming pool and gym. “I’m going to the [insert university name] Spa!” she says.

    Just as we own our own bodies (a compelling legal argument made during the Abolition movement) so do we own our schedules, and our territory and the stuff we schlepp across the bundaries of that territory.

    Our children, students, co-faculty, administrators — they should not care what we do that gets our job well done. We deserve to make it as easy as possible, as stress-free as possible, and as much fun as we can handle.

  4. #4 Andie
    June 7, 2008

    Thanks for this post! I think it’s shameful that women are still made to feel guilty for this. It’s unfair to begin with that the woman is the one who is expected to take care of all the children’s needs, whether or not she works outside the home. Some of that burden (half, I would think) belongs to the father. Society needs to recognize that fact and make it a possibility (I’m thinking paternity leave, for starters).

  5. #5 Donalbain
    June 7, 2008

    I am not female, and I do not share my home with anyone but still I have sprawl issues. I simply cannot stand when work spills out of its given space. I have a small office at home, and THAT is where work gets done. I dont even allow a single kid’s exercise book into my “living area”.

  6. #6 GF
    June 7, 2008

    “But my hunch is that female academics with children feel guilty about this spill-over. I know I have. It has felt like a failure on my part that my career has taken up space that rightly belonged to my family. It has felt like, if only I were more efficient (or could get by on less sleep), I would be able to police the boundaries between work and life better. Then I’d have more time to play, or to weed the garden, or to bake bread.”

    This applies to male academics with children also. I’m not trying to be contentious; I recognize that men with kids typically have it much easier than their female counterparts for a variety of reasons. I just note that this issue is relevant for many of your male readers. I really appreciate the post, actually.

  7. #7 Luna_the_cat
    June 8, 2008

    I think it’s a fantastic idea to share what you are doing with your kids, every so often. That will open up your world to them, even more, and may just recruit their sympathy for your efforts. Better yet, though, it means they will feel that this kind of endeavor is something they are familiar with and could do, if they want to, when they are older; you are giving them a map for their own efforts.

  8. #8 Brigindo
    June 8, 2008

    Great post. My son grew up watching me work both at home and when he had to come hang out in my office. I believed I was doing a good thing in modeling a woman who worked hard and who loved her work. I still do. However I felt guilty when I was working and he wanted to interact and I did not WANT to stop working. I had the ability to choose and sometimes I stopped and played (or whatever) and sometimes I sent him away. I didn’t feel guilty because it was the right or the wrong thing to do but I felt bad that I really didn’t want to stop working and his request, no matter what it was or how it was conveyed, felt like an annoyance. I still feel that way when I’m interrupted by him or my husband or any other family member.

    I imagine a lot of men feel this way too. As parents and people we want both and although we can find ways to try and have them both we can’t at the same time. Sometimes we feel guilty about that and maybe that’s ok.

  9. #9 Stacey
    June 9, 2008

    I’ll be sharing this post w/ my readers!

  10. #10 Opiwan
    June 9, 2008

    I say sprawl away! My mom was an elementary special-ed teacher, and never was there a night during the school year where there wasn’t grading or planning going on in our house. My wife is a middle-school science teacher, and rarely is there a night where her work doesn’t “sprawl” into our home. Of course, our sprogs are young enough that she can wait to work until after they’re tucked in, but that won’t last. Considering I’ve been known to borrow a laptop from work to bring home when the need arises, we both tend to sprawl from the office to the home. I particularly like to sprawl, because that means I can come home at my normal time, spend time with the kids, and still get that extra work done instead of staying at the office until all hours of the night, depriving myself and the kids of that lovely noogie-giving and -receiving time!

  11. #11 LO
    June 9, 2008

    There’s a colloquium at SLAC today (4:15 in Panofsky Auditorium, same place you presented) “Navigating the Labyrinth: Energy Sinks and Other Career Barriers for Women” by Patricia Rankin of the University of Colorado. Her talk will consider the questions of why more women don’t pursue careers in the sciences, what the research tells us about the barriers they may face, and what must change to alter the current situation.

  12. #12 Jennie
    June 9, 2008

    I love this post. Well written.

  13. #13 Super Sally
    June 10, 2008

    Good post.

    We are lucky when our work is part of who we are, not just something we must do to survive, be we scientists, farmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, professionals or whatever.

    Sharing our passion for our work and our work ethic seems to me to be an essential part of raising our children to be contributing adults. Hopefully they will grow into finding fulfilling work that becomes part of who they are too.

    That your parents’ work and home often merged in the Waring-blender of your youth was inescapable with what we chose to do as well as when and how. But I guess the effects weren’t all negative, even if dinner was often late.

    (a.k.a. One-more-run Mom)

  14. #14 Kate
    June 10, 2008

    Well said! As a mom to a little baby and no childcare until late August (yet I’m still fooling myself that I can make a July grant deadline), I can understand the guilt and the sprawl.

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